Know When to Walk Away
A Twelve-Step Digital Detox
The goal of the web is to engage you, to get you to click, scroll, double tap, laugh, cry, and share, to get you to stay up late online and then wake up in the morning and do it all over again. And I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t want the articles on desiringGod.org and the Ask Pastor John podcast episodes to get built into the daily rituals of your life. Of course I do, and I am deeply grateful when they are.
So this is a counterintuitive article about how to step back from social media for a short season for the purpose of recalibrating your life habits and priorities. I want your engagement, but far more importantly, I want you to find digital health and balance in a world without digital brakes.
To that end, for most of us smartphone users, we need seasons of digital detox.
Offline on Purpose
Like most of you, I cannot go offline completely, or escape my laptop or texts or daily emails, but I can digitally detox and pull off a two-week fast from social media. Two weeks seems about right, and if this sounds like an eternity of impossibility to you, as though some part of your inner life would die from malnourishment, then a digital detox is already long overdue.
“Find digital health and balance in a world without digital brakes.”
The stats are alarming. Facebook’s average user is now on their family of platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Messenger) for fifty minutes every day. That number is on the rise, all by the brilliant design of Mark Zuckerberg who wants nothing more than to grab more and more of your attention. And many of us are all too willing to give it to him.
So how do we push back against the urge to tap the social media icon on our phones and jump into the slot machine of digital randomness, all served up fresh and sugary, moment by moment, to the eyes? Here are twelve steps.
1. Get real with social media.
The first step is to admit that many of us slide into an uncritical and naïve view of web giants like Facebook. We need a moment of prescription-grade reality, and one dose of straight talk comes from marketing guru Seth Godin (who is intentionally not active in social media).
“Social media wasn’t invented to make you better, it was invented for you to make the company money,” said Godin recently, perhaps overstating the case, but helpfully so. He continues, “By [social media] you become an employee of the company. You are the product they sell. And they put you in a little hamster wheel and throw treats in now and then. . . . The big companies of social media went from being profoundly important and useful public goods that created enormous value, to becoming public companies under pressure to make the stock price go up.”
And the stock prices are going up. Twitter’s value fluctuates, but the company is valued between $10–40 billion. Pinterest is now between $10–16 billion. Snapchat $16 billion. But at $350 billion, Facebook is the social media behemoth, now the sixth most valuable company in America, and projected to reach the $1 trillion mark in the coming years.
Social media platforms reach valuations in the billions only if the hamsters in the hamster wheels keep spinning out content and shares and likes. These companies feed off you and profit off your time.
Not to mention, as we turn to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, more and more as a filter for the trending news, those platforms control what we see (and what we don’t see), leading to serious recent allegations of algorithm bias.
2. Delete your buttons.
I highly doubt I could pull off a digital detox without first deleting the social media apps from my phone and laptop. Some users hide the buttons into a buried folder. I find it best to get rid of them altogether (I can re-install them in about fifteen minutes). Out of the range of my mouse pointer and click-finger, the apps are, for me, rendered inaccessible. And when Instagram is not immediately accessible, for example, my phone habits change drastically.
3. Die to your digital-centered existence.
Out of all my interviews and research on the smartphone behaviors of Christians, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer left me with a line that stands out. He said the philosophic motto: “I think, therefore I am,” has been replaced with the digital motto: “I connect, therefore I am.” And he’s right.
“We crave approval and feed off likes and shares, little marks of digital affirmation.”
We are conditioned to imagine that our existence is confined to the 4-inch screen on our phones. If I am not active on social media, do I even exist?
For two weeks your Snapstreaks will come to an end, and you must be prepared for this reality if you will be freed from the mutual binding expectations of immediate response. If people depend on you online, let them know you’re stepping away for a few weeks. You can step away. You will survive, I promise.
4. Die to the addiction of personal praise.
Perhaps an even more accurate motto is to say: “I am liked, therefore I am.”
We crave approval and feed off likes and shares, little marks of digital affirmation. We want to be seen, acknowledged, and we want our images and proverbs and wit to be seen and recognized and applauded with ticks of affirmation like likes and shares. We feed on this, and this desire must die if we are to pull off a social media detox.
5. Die to the adrenaline rush.
There’s also a rush of being first to discover and share content, getting the scoop, being the most timely and prophetic, pulling up first on the scene of a social media catastrophe and offering our own personal insights, tweeting at the speed of a revolver draw from an old western holster. The immediacy of social media is quickly addictive.
And when cultural moral degeneracy seems to reach a fever pitch, as in America, it’s especially impossible to imagine how the world will be set right if I’m not actively twittering.
Inhale. Exhale. It’ll be all right.
6. Take up the spiritual disciplines more earnestly.
My survey of 8,000 Christians proved one thing most conclusively of all: Most of us tech-savvy believers are eager to postpone or trade our morning devotions for digital distractions in the precious morning hours.
“Let God’s promises overpower every small gain of digital self-notice and acceptance you seek online.”
We grab our phone, turn off an alarm, and then habitually start clicking around for digital candy. As we remove social media from our lives and our mornings, we push the phone out of sight, and more eagerly and more quickly focus on the disciplines. A two-week detox will help reset this priority in your life.
Whatever else you do, read the Psalms, Proverbs, and the entire New Testament over those two weeks. And slow down in Psalm 139 and there soak your soul in layers and layers of precious truths about God’s acceptance and love for you, his power over you, and let those promises overpower every small gain of digital self-notice and acceptance you seek online.
7. Take up big books.
Start reading the kind of books that will take you many days of engagement, the kind that will demand your attention, stopped and then restarted again, for many consecutive days.
Read something big and monumental. Start Patrick O’Brian’s sea novels, or Shelby Foote’s retelling of the Civil War, or William Manchester’s biography of Churchill, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Let the clean breeze of great books sweep through your life to wash away the immediacy of digital breaking news.
8. Take up a big project.
In other words, with your free time, don’t Netflix-binge it away. Get back to your key life goals. Take two or three days simply to define God’s role and priorities in your life. Then, based on those callings, strive to accomplish one big project that aligns with those goals.
For me, digital detox and book writing go hand-in-hand, the one calling for the other. For others, a digital detox maps on to a summer vacation with family and friends. In other words, you must find good reasons to not be on social media.
9. Take up personal meetings.
We were made to know and be known, and social media edges out (for many of us) the more important relationships in our lives. Be more intentional with meeting friends in person. Meet in person, and fill up your two weeks with scheduled lunches and dinners out with face-to-face friends.
10. Take up a food diet and detox.
“Let the clean breeze of great books sweep away the immediacy of digital breaking news.”
Food fasting is severing yourself from a love of sugar. Digital fasting is the severing of yourself from the sugar of self-approval. Both battles are fights against the sinful flesh, and both experiences are similar. So intertwined are these battles (against junk food and junk media), it is wise to think about a physical food diet (like paleo) or even fasting at the same time you go off social media. I cannot fully explain it, but for me it’s nearly impossible to stifle my social media appetite while indulging my physical appetite.
Of course food fasting is hard, especially the first day or two days. It will be extremely hard, and then it gets easier and we start to see the fruit about day three or four, and that’s exactly what happens with a digital detox. It hurts for the first day or two, but after a while we experience the health benefits and the payoff becomes clearer.
11. Take up a journal.
Grab a pen and notebook, and journal your way through the experience. If you are a smartphone addict, few things more expose your loves and desires and cravings than a digital detox. Two weeks offline will force you to face your deepest insecurities, to see all of the desires that you were feeding on, and to confront them head on.
This will be, for two weeks, a season of intense self-discovery, and it’s a season that demands careful processing of what you feel and what you grow to miss more (or less) as the days progress. It’s worth documenting the experience.
12. Please don’t announce your return.
At the end of two weeks you will still feel a strong pull to be seen and appreciated online, and I promise you will be compelled to write a Facebook post about 10 things you learned from being off social media for two weeks.
“Food fasting severs us from the love of sugar. Digital fasting severs us from the sugar of self-approval.”
The point of social media detox is to experience life away from the digital tabulations of personal approval and acceptance online, not to store up ammunition to use later.
If you storm back with an essay on all the lessons you learned, you will have prostituted your offline time for an online purpose, and that pretty much renders the experiment as pointless as telling everyone you fasted from food for a week in order to be seen and noticed (see Matthew 6:16–18).
Simply merge back online, now with better and more thoughtful habits. You will be surprised how few people will notice that you were gone. Register that in the back of your mind, and even put it in your journal as a final reflection for the experiment to think more about later. And when you return, take note of how many open messages really needed an immediate response from you (and how many didn’t).
I love my phone, and I love social media, and I love all the digital friends I have met over the years who share common gospel interests. I wouldn’t trade social media for many things — but I will give it up for a season. And I know Christians who have attempted a similar detox and never returned to social media. They jumped out of the hamster wheel for good. It’s a good season to make that determination.
Either way — whatever the final result, set aside time to digitally detox. And if you return to social media, you will more likely see the strategic value of your activity, and parse it from the vain digital practices of our lives. And then pick up your phone and use it for God-glorifying purposes. Such a season is life-giving and spiritually freeing, goal-focusing, and horizon-expanding.